William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing (3473 words)


The earliest text of Much Ado About Nothing was published in 1600, but its title page attests that the play had “beene sundrie times publically acted by the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants”. The text also uses the name of comic actor William Kemp (who performed with the Lord Chamberlain’s Company during 1598-99 but not later) as speech headings for Dogberry, suggesting that the play was written some time during 1598-99. Many scholars have conjectured that Much Ado could be the play listed by Francis Meres in 1598 as Love’s Labour’s Won; several recent productions have even presented the play under that title (see Potter). The comedy was also performed at court in 1613 during the celebration of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to the Elector Palatine.

Much Ado is structured around two comic plots. The contentious wooing of Beatrice and Benedick draws on a long tradition of “shrewish women” and could have been inspired by the fractious lovers Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. The Hero-Claudio plot recalls Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; there Genevra’s rejected suitor Polynesso takes his revenge by arranging for Genevra’s maid to impersonate her and meet him in her bedroom. He makes sure that the man she loves, Ariodante, sees them making love. A similar plot occurs in Matteo Bandello’s La Prima Parte de le Novella (1554), from which Shakespeare likely borrowed the setting in Messina and the names of several characters.

Much Ado’s title is a double signifier. In Shakespeare’s England “Nothing” was pronounced the same as “noting,” and throughout the play characters note things about each other, sometimes accurately, but more often inaccurately because of mishearing or from other characters’ deliberate deceptions. Thus, Much Ado is indeed about “noting’, but not necessarily accurate noting. Nearly all the characters seize on appearances and believe what is false, and many of the characters resort to disguises, masking, eavesdropping, and other practices that distort reality. Even Beatrice and Benedick’s merry war of words is a form of disguise, meant to prevent others from noting their true feelings. All of Messina’s inhabitants have difficulty discerning the truth.

“Nothing” also embodies the play’s obsession with gender roles and the war between the sexes. In Shakespeare’s day “nothing’ was a slang term for female genitalia, which had “no thing”, i.e. phallus. Much Ado is set in a tightly-knit aristocratic society in which marriages are arranged by men for financial or social advantage. In such arrangements, a woman’s virginity before marriage was a sine qua non because property descended from the father to the oldest son, and consequently fathers wanted assurance that their estate went to their own son, not someone else’s. The male characters in Much Ado, especially Benedick, repeatedly joke about the “horns” worn by cuckolds whose wives betray them; proliferating horn jokes underscore an underlying male anxiety about female sexuality. Arden editor Claire McEachern observes, “the impediments to love in both pairs [of lovers] originate in the same source: male suspicion of female sexual inconstancy and its corollary, rival male predation” (54).

Much Ado also demonstrates Shakespeare’s facility with language. Over two thirds of the text is in prose; iambic pentameter is reserved for moments of intense emotion, such as Claudio’s denunciation of Hero on her wedding day. In many scenes, conversation is a competitive sport, with each participant trying to get the last word. In rapid-paced repartee, Shakespeare exploits a host of rhetorical devices – metaphors, antitheses, repetitions, anaphora, puns, quibbles, and, in Dogberry, malapropisms. The play’s semantic fluidity “dramatizes at a linguistic level the larger thematic questions in the play, the way in which signs are unstable, unpredictable and subject to manipulation, whether in play or in perversion” (McEachern 73). Even minor characters play with words. Take for example the opening scene: the unnamed Messenger brings news to Leonato, the Governor of Messina, that the war between Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, and his brother Don John has ended. When Leonato inquires after Don Pedro’s associate, the young Signior Claudio, the Messenger replies like a rhetorician: “He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion; he hath indeed better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how” (1.1.12-16). Ironically, the character least adept with language, Dogberry, discovers the truth when others cannot.

In the first act Shakespeare sets up the plot and reveals his characters through a series of conversations. After Leonato learns that Don Pedro will soon arrive, his niece Beatrice utters a series of insults directed at the Prince’s other companion, Benedick. In the process, she declares her intention never to marry. Why, one wonders, if she dislikes him so much, is she always talking about him? Leonato can’t control Beatrice, so she may do as she wishes, but he does control his daughter, Hero. He tells her that if the Prince should propose, she knows her answer: marriage to a prince would be socially advantageous for Leonato and his family.

When Don Pedro and his companions arrive home from the war, they seek leisurely relaxation and are glad to stay at Leonato’s at least a month. Benedick and Beatrice continue their “merry war” with barbed insults. In the midst of this talk, Don Pedro introduces his illegitimate brother Don John, who replies, “I am not of many words, but I thank you” (1.1.150). In a play where everyone loves to talk, Don John is immediately identified as an outlier.

Left alone with Benedick, Claudio confesses that he is romantically interested in Hero; Benedick is scornful of the very idea of marriage and argues that as cursed as she is, Beatrice is more attractive. Don Pedro interrupts them and, after Benedick exits, Claudio explains his attraction to Hero. The Prince approves the match, but instead of encouraging Claudio to seek Hero’s hand himself, he volunteers to woo Hero for Claudio at the masked ball planned for that evening. Don Pedro takes a special delight in interfering in others’ love-lives and this is the first of several instances in which he engineers some kind of deceit or trick to make people do as he wishes.

Shakespeare exploits eavesdropping throughout Much Ado, and usually the listeners draw false conclusions from what they hear. In the first case, Leonato’s brother Antonio overhears Claudio and Don Pedro’s conversation about wooing Hero, but he grossly misconstrues it, thinking that Don Pedro wants Hero for himself.

Act 1, Scene 3 introduces Don John’s henchmen, Borachio and Conrade. Don John declares himself “a plain dealing villain” and longs for revenge against his brother Don Pedro. Like Antonio, Borachio has overheard Claudio’s and Don Pedro’s conversation about wooing Hero, but unlike Antonio, he has interpreted it correctly. When Don John learns of the proposed marriage, he resolves to prevent it simply out of spite: “If I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way” (1.3.62-3): hurting Claudio will also hurt Don Pedro.

The second act begins with more talk of marriage. Beatrice insists that she will never marry, “Not till God makes men of some other metal than earth” (2.1.52-3). Somewhat like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Beatrice uses her “cursed” tongue as a strategic defense against being married off to someone she does not love. But Hero is subject to her father’s will and must marry the man he chooses. Antonio tells Hero, “Well, niece, I trust you will be ruled by your father” (2.1.44-45).

All the characters gather onstage as the masked ball begins. In a stylized dance each couple moves downstage to engage in conversation. All wear masks, and several of the dancers mistake their partners’ identity and jump to false conclusions. Pretending to be Claudio, Don Pedro dances with Hero and takes her aside. Beatrice recognizes that her partner is Benedick; he, on the other hand, assumes Beatrice doesn’t know him, leaving her free to insult him without pushback. The dialogue between Antonio and Ursula sums up the play’s emphasis on knowing and not knowing. Ursula tells Antonio, “I know you well enough; you are Signior Antonio”. He replies, “At a word, I am not”. Ursula insists, ‘“I know you by the waggling of your head” and concludes, “Come, come, do you think I do not know you by your excellent wit? Can virtue hide itself? Go to, mum; you are he” (2.1.101-13). How one can know another person’s true nature is indeed the comedy’s major question.

Meanwhile, Don John draws Claudio aside and tells him that Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself. Although the young Count is understandably angry, his readiness to believe without question what Don John tells him indicates his immaturity. But this time Don John’s effort to sow disharmony fails; Don Pedro immediately corrects Claudio and all is forgotten in an episode that serves as a foretaste of later events.

Furious at the way Beatrice slandered him during the dance, Benedick rushes offstage at the very sight of her: “I cannot endure my Lady Tongue” (2.1.251-2). Don Pedro teases Beatrice, “you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick” (2.1.253-4), but if we take her response seriously, it suggests that the two had a relationship before the play began: “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it; a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore your grace may well say I have lost it” (2.1.255-8). We never learn what went wrong between them, but the obsessive way Beatrice and Benedick talk about each other suggests that their feelings remain strong. Don Pedro decides to intervene and enlists everyone in a plan to make Beatrice and Benedick fall “into a mountain of affection th’one with th’other” (2.1.338-9). In contrast, his brother Don John latches onto Borachio’s scheme to block Hero’s wedding by making Claudio believe she has had sexual relations with another man. In this way Shakespeare artfully establishes a clear contrast between the brothers. They are both schemers who plot to control others, but Don Pedro intervenes to bring young lovers together, while Don John plots to drive them apart, wreaking havoc on them, their friends and family.

Don Pedro’s scheme will only work if Benedick and Beatrice believe what they overhear. Shakespeare begins the scene with Benedick’s monologue; he wonders why his friend Claudio would want to marry anyone and resolves never to follow suit. When he sees Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato enter, Benedick hides. He can’t resist listening to what his comrades say and assumes that what they say is true. The men, in turn, act as if Benedick weren’t there. They describe the many ways Beatrice suffers from love for Benedick and how cruel he is. After they depart, Benedick undergoes an epiphany; he resolves to be “horribly in love” with Beatrice (2.3.226-7). Shakespeare concludes this scene with a bookend to Benedick’s earlier monologue. He had claimed that no woman could ever meet his criteria for beauty, brains, and virtue; by the end of the scene, he asserts just the opposite – Beatrice has all the qualities he seeks.

It is Beatrice’s turn to be tricked. In the following scene she hides while Hero, Margaret and Ursula describe how desperately Benedick loves her. They can’t tell her about his love for her because she would only make a joke of it:

Therefore let Benedick, like covered fire,
Consume away in sighs, waste inwardly,
It were a better death than die with mocks,
Which is as bad as die with tickling. (3.1.77-80)

In contrast to Benedick’s gulling in prose, the women cast their net in iambic pentameter, and Beatrice’s reaction to what she overhears is a sonnet. The tightly disciplined form seems appropriate as Beatrice decides to tame her “wild heart to [his] loving hand”, and “To bind our loves up in a holy band” (3.1.112-14). Embedded in these two scenes’ language is a gender difference. Benedick speaks in free-flowing prose, Beatrice in a tightly constrained sonnet. He will take Beatrice to wife, while she must tame her wild heart and submit to Benedick’s hand.

Don Pedro’s practice on Beatrice and Benedick is followed by Don John’s plot against Claudio. Don John arranges for Claudio and Don John to watch with him that night outside Hero’s bedroom where they will see the ocular proof of her infidelity. If Hero is false, Claudio will shame her before her family on the wedding day. Before that happens, however, Shakespeare introduces the constable Dogberry and the Watch. Dogberry’s ineptness with language and the Watch’s incompetence not only offer comic relief, they reassure the audience that things will turn out happily. The Watch overhears Borachio describe to Conrade how Margaret dressed in Hero’s clothes and met him in Hero’s bedroom while Claudio and Don Pedro watched from below. The bumbling constables, appalled at what they overhear, take the villains into custody.

Leonato is in such haste to prepare for his daughter’s wedding that he tells Dogberry to submit a report of the night’s events later. As the wedding party assembles in 4.1, the dialogue is casual, but as soon as Claudio denounces Hero, emotions run high and Shakespeare turns to blank verse. The aborted wedding also underscores marriage as an arrangement between the bride’s father and the groom: rejecting Hero, Claudio refuses to accept “this rotten orange” (4.1.30) that Leonato has given him. After Don Pedro confirms Claudio’s account of Hero’s assignation with a man in her bedchamber, the disgraced Leonato wishes his daughter’s death. Stunned by Claudio’s accusation, Hero faints, and the Count and Don Pedro leave, assuming she is dead.

Fortunately for Hero, the Friar relies on his own instincts rather than others’ accusations. He explains:

By noting of the lady, I have marked
A thousand blushing apparitions
To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames
In angel whiteness beat away those blushes
[. . .]
Trust not my reading nor my observations,
Which with experimental seal doth warrant
The tenor of my book; trust not my age,
My reverence, calling nor divinity,
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error. (4.1.158-70)

The Friar has no proof, but he “notes” Hero’s blushes and believes that she is guiltless. Recovering from her faint, Hero emphatically proclaims her innocence, and the Friar insists, “There is some strange misprision in the princes” (4.1.185). He arranges another deception – they are to pretend that Hero is dead and wait for the “truth” to come to light.

When the wedding party departs, Beatrice is left weeping. Benedick tries to comfort her, and at long last the reluctant lovers admit their feelings for each other. But when Benedick playfully asks, “Come, bid me do anything for thee”, Beatrice answers in all seriousness, “Kill Claudio”. If she were a man who could call Claudio out, she “would eat his heart in the marketplace” (4.1.287-305), for despite Claudio and Don Pedro’s testimony, Beatrice believes that Hero is falsely accused. When Benedick asks, “Think you in your soul that Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?”, she replies, “Yes, as sure as I have a thought or a soul” (4.1.325-7). Throughout Much Ado, as the song says, men are deceivers ever, but Beatrice believes in truth that comes from the heart.

Shakespeare switches back to comedy in the following scene as Dogberry examines his prisoners, Conrade and Borachio. Meanwhile, Leonato has had a change of heart. He wants to challenge Claudio to a duel because, “My soul doth tell me Hero is belied” (5.1.42). When Leonato finally learns the truth, he asks Claudio and Don Pedro to demonstrate their repentance by posting a eulogy at Hero’s tomb proclaiming her innocence. Then to cement the restored bond between Leonato and Claudio, the Count must marry his niece the following morning. The play concludes with a final deception. Claudio arrives committed to marrying a woman he has never seen. When the veiled lady removes her veil, Don Pedro and Claudio are astonished to see Hero, who explains, “One Hero died defiled, but I do live, And surely as I live, I am a maid” (5.4.60-61). Benedick, too, is ready to marry, and after more witcracking, he and Beatrice kiss. Almost as an afterthought, we learn that Don John, the source of so much sorrow, has fled. The play ends with a dance – and a horn joke.

For much of its history, Much Ado About Nothing has succeeded in the theatre as a romantic comedy. Two sets of lovers, one couple young and inexperienced (Claudio and Hero), the other more mature and reluctant to commit (Benedick and Beatrice), overcome challenges from without and within to commit to marriage. Yet from the late twentieth century to the present, critics have highlighted the play’s darker elements. Claudio’s brutal renunciation of Hero on her wedding day, and his later willingness to marry Leonato’s ‘niece’ sight unseen, make him one of Shakespeare’s more disagreeable male lovers. Benedick’s closing advice to Don Pedro to get a wife, “There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn” (5.4.121-2), equivocates with the comedy’s ostensibly romantic finale (Parsons 86).

Much Ado About Nothing continues to be one of Shakespeare’s most frequently staged plays, but contemporary performances are increasingly willing to acknowledge the darker side of early modern gender expectations embedded within it. Its filmic history reflects this shift. A televised version of the 1972 New York Shakespeare Festival production, directed by A. J. Antoon, set the play during the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, with the men dressed as Teddy Roosevelt’s roughriders and Dogberry and the Watch as Keystone cops. Sam Waterston’s Benedick and Kathleen Widdoes’ Beatrice engaged in their merry war with panache, minimizing any undercurrent of anxiety. Kenneth Branagh’s full-scale production of 1993 began with Beatrice’s (Emma Thompson) recitation of Balthazar’s song, “Sigh no more, ladies [. . .] Men were deceivers ever”. This rearrangement of the text momentarily highlighted the play’s concern with issues of gender, but for the most part the highly romanticized film glossed over them. Joss Whedon’s more recent (2013) black and white film, set in a contemporary house in southern California, takes those issues more seriously by providing a backstory to Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship. In a flashback Beatrice recalls an earlier night when she and Benedick slept together and the pain she felt after he snuck away without a word. Setting Shakespeare’s play in the twenty-first century, Whedon qualifies the text’s romantic trajectory and demonstrates its complex exploration of relations between men and women in a close-knit community.

Edition Cited

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing, edited by Claire McEachern, Bloomsbury, 2005.

Works Cited

Parsons, Elinor. “The State of the Art.” Much Ado About Nothing: A Critical Reader, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Peter J. Smith, Bloomsbury, 2018, pp. 67-87.
Potter, Lois. “Much Ado’ or ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’ – Does It Matter?” Much Ado About Nothing: A Critical Reader, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Peter J. Smith, Bloomsbury, 2018, pp. 133-53.

Citation: Vaughan, Virginia Mason. "Much Ado About Nothing". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 12 February 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3403, accessed 02 December 2021.]

3403 Much Ado About Nothing 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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